Last Updated: 03/17/15
Internal Medicine Career Guide
Physicians who practice internal medicine, also called internists, provide comprehensive care on a long-term basis for adults, adolescents and the elderly. Internists diagnose a wide variety of illnesses that can occur in any of the body systems. Many internists serve as primary care providers for their patients and refer them to physicians who specialize in the body system that has developed an illness. Because they serve the role of a primary care provider, internal medicine physicians often provide their patients with wellness and disease prevention objectives and management of substance abuse and mental health problems. They are also usually the first doctor someone sees who is having problems with their eyes, skin, nervous system, ears or reproductive organs when they do not want to visit a specialist first.
As with most specialties, there are a number of subspecialties an internal medicine physician can choose to specialize in. These include adolescent medicine, critical care medicine, geriatric medicine, hematology, infectious disease, interventional cardiology, sports medicine, rheumatology and sleep medicine, just to name a few.
Most internists practice in an outpatient office setting in clinics or private practices. However, if one of their patients becomes hospitalized, the internist will more than likely visit their patient in the hospital during their rounding. Many internal medicine physicians chose to become a hospitalist to help make their schedules less hectic as they do not have to spend time rounding to different hospitals to see all of their patients. Being a hospitalist is actually another career path you can take as an internist.
The average internist works 4 or 5 days a week with normal office hours, seeing about 24 patients a day on average. You might also need to spend additional time rounding or being on call if you work in a facility where it is needed.
Since being an internist allows you the opportunity to build relationships with your patients over long periods of time, it can be very rewarding. Despite this, a 2012 Medscape survey found that internists rated their level of happiness an average of 3.88 on a scale from 1 to 5, 5 being the happiest. This was actually the lowest score recorded out of all of the specialties polled. Internists tied with neurologists and gastroenterologists.
In order to become an internal medicine physician, you must complete a four year medical school program followed by a three year intensive residency program in internal medicine. If you decide to specialized in a subspecialty of internal medicine, you will have to complete another one to three years of fellowship training.
Also, before being able to practice you will need to pass the Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and most internists must become board certified in internal medicine, which you can obtain by passing the board exams.
While internists are compensated fairly well, they make significantly less than those more specialized physicians. According to a 2010 compansation survey published in Modern Healthcare, the average annual salary for internists ranges between $184,200 to $231,690. Keep in mind that the current average for internists fresh out of their residency is about $156,000. However, if you decide to become a hospitalist you will likely end up making more and working less.
The outlook for internists is no different than that for any other physician and it is very good. There have been many reports that physician jobs will grow 14% from now until at least 2016. This is no doubt a product of the boost in the elderly population that will occur very soon. This also means many physicians will be retiring themselves, leaving open positions for new internists. As patients become more aware of the prices they pay for medical services, they are more likely to visit an internist before visiting a specialist.